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Harper’s and the Great Cancel Culture Panic

You can imagine my chagrin when I discovered that Harper’s, a magazine that I have subscribed to since the early 80s, provided a platform for “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The open letter was a denunciation of “cancel culture” in the name of liberal values as if angry Tweets by mostly powerless young people had anything to do with state-sponsored censorship. Although I will say more about how and why this letter materialized, it is worth pointing out that one of its signatories is Cary Nelson, a professor emeritus at the U. of Illinois. In 2013, the board of trustees sent Steven Salaita a letter stating they were hiring him for a job teaching American Indian studies. Behind the scenes, Nelson and major donors connected to the Israel lobby had already begun a campaign to persuade the board to rescind the offer because of Salaita’s pro-Palestinian views. He had already resigned a tenured position when the board caved into Zionist pressures. That left Salaita unemployed. Today he drives a school bus and will likely never teach again.

Stripping Salaita of his academic freedom did not prevent Cary Nelson’s name from showing up on the letter, something I’d compare to Tom Friedman signing an open letter denouncing neoliberalism. The letter states, “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” Maybe, the letter should have added except in the case of anti-Zionists.

Like the Euston Manifesto of 2006 that supported Bush’s war in Iraq, the open letter made frontpage news. The Euston Manifesto was a big deal because some putative leftists like Marc Cooper signed it. Fellow Eustonite Paul Berman signed the Harper’s letter along with staunch George W. Bush supporter Michael Ignatieff. You almost feel like you were at a laptop bombardiers reunion. Perhaps trying to cover their left flank, the open letter’s masterminds made sure to include Noam Chomsky, the gold standard of leftist credibility—or at least he was in the 1960s and 70s. Any open letter with his name on it that appeared in the N.Y. Times or the N.Y. Review of Books back then was like a kosher stamp on a chicken.

As a free speech absolutist, Chomsky gave the letter the credibility it needed. He has always been for academic freedom even when it meant defending Robert Faurisson in a preface to one of his neo-Nazi tracts: “I see no hint of anti-Semitic implications in Faurisson’s work.” Chomsky’s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” metaphysics sometimes puts him in bad company. Last November, he co-signed a letter that effectively absolved Assad from a chlorine gas attack that cost the lives of more than 40 people in Douma. When I contacted him about the wisdom of such a move, he took great umbrage with my criticisms. Like all the other big-shots who signed the letter, his self-critical faculties are underdeveloped. As far as they are concerned, we are Trump’s allies: “The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy.”

Thomas Chatterton Williams, a black member of the Harper’s editorial board, got the wheels turning for the letter after Bookforum reviewer Tobi Haslett described his memoir as that of an “incoherent” political centrist. He saw Williams as part of a trend that included the N.Y. Times’s Bari Weiss and David Brooks. (They also signed the Harper’s letter.) Haslett posed the question in the final paragraph: What is this book: cynicism or foolishness?

Williams gave examples of cancel culture victims, including a data analyst named David Shor, who Tweeted a link to a study that blamed riots for Nixon’s election in 1968. Since he worked for a Democratic Party consulting firm, he might have been a bit more cautious during the massive movement against killer-cops when rioting occurred at the outset.

It is ironic to see such a complaint coming from a Harper’s editor given the track record of trust fund multimillionaire John “Rick” MacArthur who owns it. Two years ago, MacArthur fired his editor-in-chief John Marcus for opposing a Katie Roiphe article. Isn’t the whole point of capitalism, even under a nicey-nice president like Obama, to have the right to hire and fire at will?

If you want to get a feel for Williams’s capriciousness and finely-honed sense of victimhood, you need to read his reply to Tobi Haslett in Harper’s February 2020 issue. I found it so aggravating that I wrote the editor that I might cancel my subscription. To be quite honest, I’ll probably never unsub because I am addicted to their cryptic crossword puzzles. The article begins by describing Haslett as “a young writer and critic with Marxist leanings” and then proceeds to dish out one platitude after another. Who except PBS Evening News fans would get much out of twaddle like this? “What our society sorely misses now is not some sterling ideological consistency but rather a genuine liberalism that is strong and supple enough to look for ways to build on who we are, in all our human incongruity.”

Williams counts Isaiah Berlin as a main ideological influence in his reply to Haslett. As one of the 20th century’s most pompous enemies of radical change, Berlin seems well suited to Williams’s designs. As he grew older, Isaac Deutscher sought to escape the pressures of journalism through the stability of an academic post. The University of Sussex was ready to hire him, but Berlin pulled a Cary Nelson on him. As a member of the advisory board at Sussex, Berlin told the vice-chancellor: “The candidate of whom you speak is the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable.” In other words, Berlin canceled one of the most respected Marxists of the late twentieth century.

If there’s one thing that unites most of Harper’s open letter signers besides their centrism, it is their power. These are not minor-leaguers. Most are media potentates, like Nicholas Lemann, the Dean Emeritus of the Columbia Journalism School. Protective of his lofty position, Lemann wrote an article for The New Yorker in 2006 warning about the rabble muscling is on “real journalism” like his. This magazine that routinely appears in the reception room of most doctors in Manhattan has the same relationship to the Columbia Journalism school that the Business School has to Goldman-Sachs. Titled “Amateur Hour”, Lemann’s article was an exercise in gatekeeping:

At the highest level of journalistic achievement, the reporting that revealed the civil-liberties encroachments of the war on terror, which has upset the Bush Administration, has come from old-fashioned big-city newspapers and television networks, not Internet journalists; day by day, most independent accounts of world events have come from the same traditional sources.

Really? You’d think he’d eat these words after Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning used Wikileaks to puncture holes in the Bush administration’s war propaganda, especially from its boosters in the N.Y. Times like Judith Miller.

Among the signers, you will also find Roger Berkowitz, who runs the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, where criticizing Israel can get you fired just like Steven Salaita. After Bard Professor Joel Kovel wrote “Overcoming Zionism,” the U. of Michigan Publishing House decided not to publish it after coming under the same pressure as the U. of Illinois. It only reversed this decision after a hue-and-cry went up in the academy. One supposes that after Leon Botstein got a peek at the book, he decided not to renew Kovel’s contract. That, of course, was his right under capitalism. I don’t recall Berkowitz speaking up on Joel’s behalf, or other Bard professors, except John Halle.

You’ll find another Bard professor who signed the letter, one that ostensibly was a victim of the “cancel culture” Williams and company want to contest. In 2018, Ian Buruma resigned as editor from the New York Review of Books after he decided to publish an essay by the Canadian talk show host Jian Ghomeshi, who had been acquitted in 2016 of one count of choking and four counts of sexual assault. It seems that over twenty women complained either to the police or in the media. When asked by the always on-target Isaac Chotiner of New York magazine why he decided to publish the article, Buruma said, “The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is it really my concern.” Not really his concern? That’s quite a mouthful.

I am not sure how Buruma ever wrangled a position at the New York Review of Books in the first place. In 2006, he wrote a piece for the Guardian arguing that masturbation can lead to suicide bombing. While I am not sure whether that would have fit in with the Euston Manifesto’s pro-war propaganda, it certainly marks him as utterly clueless about Muslim resentment, which had more to do with oil being ripped off by Western corporations rather than getting laid. Then again, the N.Y. Review has never impressed me as a fount of wisdom except for David Levine’s Hogarthian drawings.

I’ve never given much thought to the whole question of cancel culture before, but if Jonah Bromwich’s 2018 N.Y. Times article “Everyone Is Canceled” is any guide, maybe it’s not that bad. Apparently, it is celebrities like Kanye West who become victims of cancellation on social media, especially Twitter as in this instance: “Idc how hard life gets. KANYE you are cancelled and forever will be canceled in my book.” (Idc means “I don’t care,” I guess.) This Tweet was likely a response to the West’s statement that “slavery was a choice.” I doubt that people canceling him on Twitter will have any impact on his earnings. By and large, he and all the people who signed the Harper’s letter will never be unemployed (Buruma kept his job at Bard). In any case, cancellation for Ian Buruma, David Brooks, and Bari Weiss amounts to a slap on the wrist. Eventually, these stuffed shirts will have to deal with the outrage of millions who rightly blame the media and academic elite for their current-day misery. Perhaps their self-pitying manifesto anticipates that day of reckoning.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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